• Journal Archive
Virginia Hanusik is an artist and researcher whose work explores the relationship between culture and the built environment. DNO had the opportunity to interview her about her work, her love for Louisiana, and the importance of building a better future.

Can you tell us a little bit more about the research you’re working on, how you became passionate about it, and how it’s evolved?

I’ve been photographing the Louisiana landscape for the past 4 years and my latest project is really a compilation of a few different bodies of work that have focused on New Orleans and the surrounding coastal communities. Last year I received funding from the Graham Foundation to advance my research on issues I’ve been exploring related to climate change, climate migration, and architectural adaptation, so I’ve been working on producing a project that combines archival images and maps alongside contemporary photographs that I’ve taken and interviews with coastal residents. The project is meant to serve as a form of visual representation of the past and present landscape along Louisiana’s coast and capture a specific moment in time as rapid environmental changes is happening. I’m still developing what the final product looks like, whether that’s an exhibition, book, etc. Public accessibility is an important part of my work, so I’m still playing with ideas around disseminating my images and research that allows for meaningful engagement with people.

You seem to be very fond of your time in Louisiana - why were you spending time here, and how did it impact you/your life/your work?

I love Louisiana so much. But…I’m not from here, and I know that means something to some people and I feel like I should make that clear. I grew up in New York’s Hudson River Valley surrounded by picturesque landscapes, rolling hills, and fall foliage (for reference, American landscape painting began there), so I’ve been extremely privileged throughout my life to be surrounded by natural beauty. That being said, I spent the first two decades of my life (with the exception of a Disneyworld trip at age 7) entirely in the Northeast. So, when I got to college I was really – borderline extra -  eager to take advantage of travel opportunities that came my way, which led me to New Orleans as part of a volunteer group that Bard College (my alma mater) began after Katrina and still organizes today. I got to meet Mayor LaToya Cantrell when she was still working at the Broadmoor Improvement Association, and completely fell in love with the city. My story is certainly not unique.

However, when I made the move down here in 2014, my curiosity was off the charts once I started venturing outside the city. To be honest, I was a total loner for the first year I lived in New Orleans so I would go on drives to orient myself with the city and its surroundings and distract myself from having no friends (I’m okay now I promise, thank you). This exploring led to the development of my first project, Backwater, which was really me trying to process the changes in architectural style and geography between South Louisiana and my home region. I kept photographing and learning more about the history of the landscape through local authors such as Richard Campanella, and found so much inspiration for projects that have just kept building.

Why is it important that we pay attention to this specific environmental issue right now?

Of course I’m biased, but if you don’t have the Earth you really have nothing. Is that fair to say? I think so. Anyway, climate change is the defining issue of our time, and the reason it’s so important to be focusing on Louisiana right now is because what is happening along the coast (coastal retreat, climate migration, rising sea levels) will affect everyone at some point. Because of the unique geography and economy of the region, South Louisiana just happens to be experiencing these issues at a rapid rate.

There are so many opportunities to fix the environmental degradation that is happening and build a future that is vibrant and equitable for all residents, but planning has to be done with the people of the communities who have been impacted. When I worked in the social entrepreneurship field, I had the opportunity to engage with businesses and organizations that were focused on restoring the coast and making New Orleans a city that can thrive with water rather than be destroyed by it. I’m continuously inspired by the organizations doing the hard work to ensure that generations of people here have the ability to choose what the best future is for them with the geography of the region changing.

Can you speak some to your photography and how it intertwines with the research that you’re doing? Is there a goal in mind when you’re making photos?

To me, the term “research” is broad, and can certainly include a strong visual component as your going through the process of building a project. I have to visually process most things, so for me making images is a major component of learning and understanding about the subject matter I’m engaged with. There will be sites that I look at 3-4 times before actually taking a picture because I prioritize context and personally feel like explicit context is necessary to convey to an audience in order to orient them with what they are looking at.

As I’ve been building this work on coastal Louisiana, I’m always thinking about representation and being careful to not categorize this landscape into a category of either completely doomed or absolutely safe in the context of encroaching water. There is a conflict that’s almost tangible when you analyze the landscape here, and I hope to entice people who look at my images into learning more about why things look the way they do and why it will be different in the future.

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